Fine, Be a Bigot

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It’s not often our parents suggest we are anything less than authentic but from time to time back in my teenage years, my mom would tell me,

“Heather, you may be the devil’s spawn but for God’s sake, quit acting like it!”

She was, of course, suggesting that I present a kinder, more gentler me.
Perhaps she hoped if I acted like a nicer person, I would eventually become one.

I think of my mother and her pleadings nearly every time I teach a class on discrimination and harassment prevention. You see, unless a client is offering these courses as a preventative measure, the classes are typically in response to a complaint or lawsuit. As such, I often get to meet the culprits of the offensive actions and find myself wondering what types of behavior their parents encouraged.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and numerous other anti-discrimination and harassment laws have, as their main purpose, the intent of prohibiting discrimination and harassment in employment. Regardless of the color of their skin, what god they choose to adore, their age, their marital status, or any number of other protected classes, employees should have a healthy work environment free from disparate treatment. The laws, and accompanying regulations, suggest an employee’s value should be based on productivity, quality, service, knowledge, merit and other job related issues and NOT her/his protected class. Likewise, employees should receive rights and benefits similar to those in similar circumstances. And finally, employees deserve to be treated with dignity and respect despite another’s opinion regarding their protected class.

I have been teaching discrimination and harassment prevention classes since 1995. Back in the day, my approach was “you should think this” and “you should think that.” However, I was met with resistance. Rightly so! No one wants to be told how to think.

In 1997, I changed my message. “You can believe your genetics somehow make you superior, but you won’t be allowed to act superior or denigrate others at work without consequences.” Or, “your views are your own and I appreciate you feel strongly about them, but sharing them in the workplace will likely get you fired.” I discovered this approach encouraged discussion, not argument, which was more pleasant for all involved.

Today, I am troubled by what I see in the workplace, in my community, around the state and throughout our country. I see thousands who hold bigoted and supremacist beliefs and appear to be emboldened; they are openly speaking and behaving in manners I believe to be hateful and derogatory. I often lay awake wondering if my approach for discrimination and harassment training over the last twenty years has, at its core, been an invitation for students to be prejudicial and biased.

Rationally, I know this is preposterous. My students are adults, not children. Any values or beliefs in their hearts and minds were put there long before I met them, but I worry about my message nonetheless.

I have put great effort into developing courses that encourage a healthy workplace. I offer relevant examples of offensive comments or behavior that, hopefully, enable meaningful self-reflection. I encourage students to recognize that color, ethnicity or other “protected” characteristics don’t make or break one’s ability to analyze, act, assist others or work. Finally, I almost always engage the students in discussions specific to their own “protected” characteristics. They are encouraged to analyze which characteristics, if any, are an indication of their worth as employees. I’m thankful these discussions often result in concessions that, indeed, things like religion, age, and national origin have little or nothing to do with a person’s value at work.

But there is always one or two students who just can’t get there, and while I wish like hell I could change their minds or open their hearts, it seems the best I can do is channel my mother.

“Fine, you may be a bigot, a racist, a chauvinist, a supremacist, etc., but for God’s sake, quit acting like it!”

And then I hope that if you act like a nicer person, you will eventually become one.

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